The poet John Betjeman in his Collins Guide to English Parish Churches, published in 1958, writes a description of an urban church, the product of the Anglo-Catholic revival.
‘Ting-ting’ the single bell calls to Sung Eucharist, because the tower, designed for a full peal of bells, was never completed. Rather gaunt without it, the church rises above the privet and forsythia and prunus of its little garden, for there is no churchyard to these churches; we have reached the era if municipal cemeteries, and it is in their marble acres that the dead of this new parish are to be found. Inside the church, the tall nave is filled with chairs, and the narrow aisles are not used on a Sunday, as they give a view only of side altars where the weekday Celebrations and the very early Sunday masses are said. The floor is of oak blocks, the walls are cream and clean, the woodwork of the thick Devonshire style chancel screen, carved by Harry Hems of Exeter, is unstained. In more recent times a coloured statue of Our Lady under a gilded canopy is seen against one of the eastern-most pillars of the nave. Throughthe screen we glimpse a huge reredos painted green and red and gold, with folding doors. The high altar has a purple frontal, because just now it is Lent. The floor of the sanctuary is paved with black-and-white marble. Riddel posts with gilt angels on them – the famous ‘English altar’ introduced by Sir Ninian Comper in the (eighteen) ‘eighties – hold curtains round the north, south and east of the side altars … The Sunday Eucharist is probably from the Prayer Book and with a crowd of acolytes at the altar. Blue incense rises to the golden reredos and the green Kempe window. The English Hymnal is used, and plainsong or more probably, Eyre in E flat or Tours in C. Candlelights twinkle in the mist. The purple Lenten chasuble of the priest is worn over amice, alb, stole and maniple, and there is discussion of these things after the service and before among the servers and the initiated. We are in a world which feels itself in touch with the Middle Ages and with today. This is English Catholicism. There is much talk of Percy Dearmer, correct furnishings and vestments, the Prayer Book and how far one is justified in departing from it. After church the acolytes in their Sunday suits hang round the porch, and the young curates too, and there is a good deal of backslapping and chaff. For months the Mothers’ Union and the women’s guilds of the church have been working on banners and a frontal to be ready for Easter. From these suburban parishes much of the Church life of England has sprung. They have trained their people in faith and the liturgy, they have produced many of the overseas missionaries and parish priests of today.
Those of us of my age can remember something of this world, something of this Church of England. It has gone now, with the curates and the women’s guilds, and the battered angels from the riddel posts standing forlornly on a window sill. What Betjeman was not to know when he penned these words was that a very different world lay just round the corner, and it was a changed England and a changed Church which was to emerge at the end of the 1960’s.
But the Church did emerge, and the influence of the Second Vatican Council spread way beyond the Roman Catholic Church. It took Anglo-Catholics a little time to grasp what was happening, but many of the young clergy did – and they did it with hope and enthusiasm. I recently found this ‘update’ of Betjeman’s Introduction, which I guess from the type-face I must have written in the late ‘seventies.
Articulated lorries and family cars head for the coast; an old man reads his Sunday paper in the warm sunshine; and beyond the surging sea of demolition rises the red brick bulk of some suburban church. Built in the (18) 80’s and 90’s as the railways pushed out into Surrey, Essex and Herts, to serve the newly built estates where once had been only farms and fields, these churches rarely rate a mention in the guide-books. Local architects built schools in ‘Jacobean’ and churches in ‘Early English’ Gothic; no-nonsense buildings, leaving the furniture and fittings to some future generation. Then the money was spent on other things – the Parish Hall perhaps, to house the organisations and guilds. So there is about these churches an unfinished air. The buttresses which flank the porch are unnaturally thick to support the unbuilt tower; the staircase turret ending abruptly below the roofline; the altar backed by curtains instead of the great carved reredos, which exists now only in a faded water-colour in the vestry…
The congregation looks a little thin in the chair filled nave, even though several rows were removed when the present Vicar installed the nave altar. Older members of the congregation remember the 11 o’clock, with people sitting in the side aisles – High Mass, of course, for the parish had three priests then, and Sisters. Their contemporaries have moved to bungalows in the coast, or else have died. Their sons and daughters have ‘got on’ and gone to new estates in Bushey, or Harlow, or still further to Tonbridge Wells. Their small terraced houses have been bought and renovated by eager young couples, some of whom now worship at the Parish Mass, with their small children who race their toy cars up and down the aisles. The Mass is Series 3, and everyone joins in the singing. At the Peace the Vicar encourages them to shake hands, and nearly everyone goes to communion, though some have already been to the early mass, unable to break the habit of a lifetime.
Over coffee after Mass, there is much talk of house-groups and Renewal. The past is not forgotten, but the fear of the 60’s, the worry over ever-dwindling numbers, is being replaced by a new and deeper confidence, and an emphasis on commitment, the spiritual life, and lay ministry. No-one knows what the future holds for the parishes on England, but life goes on in the present with the growing certainty that it is in the hands of God.
This is the history of the Church of England over 50 years, described in the hey-day of Anglo-Catholic influence by John Betjeman, and then by a young curate (in pastiche Betjeman) confident of Catholic Renewal. It seemed to me then that the growing convergence in matters of doctrine, represented by the ARCIC reports, and in liturgy and worship, by the 1970 Missal and the Alternative Service Book in the C of E, would inevitably lead to reunion. But my generation did not foresee that there were others in the Church of England, who, though poles apart on virtually everything, yet were united in their horror of ‘Rome’. Just when the Anglo-Catholics began to believe that their longing for One Church, One Faith, One Lord, might be fulfilled, so the ethos of the Church of England which captivated Betjeman and many of my generation, began rapidly to dissolve.
But what was that ethos, does it help us to understand what is meant by the ‘Anglican Patrimony’ and can it be renewed within the Ordinariate for the good of the whole Catholic Church in this country? I have been greatly helped by several of the comments which readers of this blog are kind enough to leave: please continue to do so.